The annual Black Potatoe Music Festival, which took place for the 21st time, Thursday through Sunday on the grounds of the Red Mill Museum in Clinton, is an independent music festival. That means it’s devoted to bands that are not signed to major label, but record and release their music on their own, or with the help of small companies.
It’s not like these performers exist in a vacuum, though. Black Potatoe is also the most familial of New Jersey’s major music festivals. Many of the same acts play year after, and know many of the other regulars. Many audience members come back year after year, too — not necessarily because they want to see a specific act, but because they trust primary organizer Matt “Angus” Williams. Everyone seems to know Williams personally.
I attended two of the four days (Thursday and Saturday), and was impressed with the consistent quality of the performers. The anchoring set of it all, though — in the festival’s long-standing tradition — was Saturday’s last performance, by Williams’ band The Matt Angus Thing, which brought together many of the festival’s musicians for a high-spirited set of Williams’ own songs, and covers. Participants included singer Anthony Morgan; Katie Henry and the duo Nalani & Sarina, who had recently finished sets of their own; keyboardist Karl Dietel, who had played on Thursday night with his own Karl Dietel Five and the Mike Montrey Band; and Gregg Cagno and Jenny Cat (of Jenny & the Felines), who were both scheduled to perform their own sets on Sunday.
The wide-ranging set included tributes to both the late Chuck Berry (a night-ending “Johnny B. Goode”) and the Gregg Allman (with covers of the Allman Brothers Band songs “Melissa,” “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and “Southbound”) and an epic jam on the Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower.” Contributing to the family vibe, Williams and members of his high school cover band Hypothermia (Dietel, Cagno, Christian Bauman and Mike Slaven) reunited to perform Arlo Guthrie’s “Coming Into Los Angeles” and the Elvis Costello hit “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Among Williams’ originals, the highlight was “Stay,” a sweet and soulful ballad.
Another signature of the Black Potatoe Music Festival is its emphasis on female performers. Twelve of the 15 acts on Saturday were solo female singer-songwriters, male-female duos, or woman-fronted bands. Styles ranged from the buoyant rock of Nalani & Sarina to the crisp acoustic blues of Danielle Miraglia. Lisa and Lori Brigantino had a bunch of catchy songs and a quirky streak in their songwriting. ilyAIMY, which often performs as a trio or quintet, shrunk down to a duo for this gig, while retaining its propulsive energy.
Making their New Jersey debut was Teneia, a biracial husband-and-wife duo from Mississippi who closed their set with “Stand,” a powerful anthem of positivity and justice.
About 40 acts performed during the course of the festival, on two stages. The music on one stage would begin just minutes after activity on the other stage ended, so you could hear music pretty much non-stop, throughout the event, without having to miss anything.
A standout act, for me, from Thursday was The End of America, a male trio from Philadelphia who sang in rich three-part harmony and ventured out into the crowd, with just one acoustic guitar and no microphones, for their last number.
Thursday also served as a record release party for KC Cary’s Beautiful & Blue album, which has just been released on the Black Potatoe label. His set was a bit rough around the edges — not surprising, perhaps, since this is his first new album in 20 years. But he still won me over with his smart songwriting and his willingness to try out whatever musical style fit the song. And “Funky Flame Still Burnin’ Bright” kind of served as an anthem for the entire festival.